Monday, March 30, 2015

Learn How to Write Better Essays, Tweet by Tweet

Who says Twitter is banal?  Writer/essayist Roxane Gay (@rgay) gave an impromptu tweet-by-tweet, Q&A tutorial on how to write essays, which has been captured in its entirety.


do you think essays have to have a specific "point"? Is comedy a good enough purpose? 

Purpose matters in all things. Humor needs to give shape to an idea of some kind.

but must there be a rhetorical point? Is expression of experience ever enough? ie,poems don't NEED a point, just a POV (in my opinion) 

Why should someone care about the expression of experience? That's why purpose matters 

And by all means, read her latest book of essays, Bad Feminist! I'm pretty sure that book will end up on my favorite books of the year list.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

P&P Bookstore ISO Writing about DC

Politics & Prose Bookstore is reading for District Lines, its annual(ish) anthology of writing that captures the DC area:

We are now accepting submissions—poems, essays, short stories, coherent musings and ramblings, scribbles, comics, photographs, or graphics—that capture a sense of people or place in D.C. and the surrounding metropolitan neighborhoods. Work must be original and previously unpublished. Prose (fiction and non-fiction) should be under 3,000 words.

The deadline is May 31, and you can read more here (be sure to follow the guidelines exactly!):

Monday, March 23, 2015

Why a Writer Must Care about Place

In her blog, writer and teacher Patty Smith recommends a wonderful writing exercise based on this quotation:

To provoke [my students] — I quote Scott Russell Sanders in his book Staying Put: Making Home in a Restless World: … “…how can you value other places if you don’t have one of your own? If you are not yourself placed, then you wander the world like a sightseer, a collector of sensations, with no gauge for measuring what you see. Local knowledge is the grounding for global knowledge. Those who care about nothing beyond the confines of their parish are in truth parochial, and are at least mildly dangerous to their parish; on the other hand, those who have no parish, those who navigate ceaselessly among postal zones and area codes, those for whom the world is only a smear of highways and bank accounts and stores, are a danger not just to their parish but to the planet.” …

Read the rest of her thoughtful meditation on race and space and check out her suggested writing exercise, which will work for any genre: 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Novel Critiques Offered by Dzanc Books

Here’s a message from Dan Wickett, co-founder of Dzanc Books, a wonderful and top-quality small press:

I'm now critiquing novel openings. Here's the pitch:

 Co-founder of Dzanc Books and one who has opened and read thousands of manuscripts with an eye toward acceptance, I would be reading and critiquing the first two chapters of your novel manuscript (or up to 40 pages) with that same eye, but as a reader and not as if I'm looking to accept or reject your novel--my critique would be a letter detailing what caught my eye, both good and bad, and where I was at when honestly were I reading this as a submission that I'd decide to say No thank you, or I want to keep reading. It will also include line edits--the length into the manuscript of which will depend on just how frequent they are--if I'm picking apart something in every sentence they won't go through the full two chapters or 40 pages, but will go in deep enough that you'll understand what I'm commenting on and why.

 Donate $50 to Dzanc to receive the above. They will be critiqued in the order they are received and I will do at least one every other day. Each mss will be read 2X before I begin to critique them in writing. When I receive your manuscript, I'll reply via email letting you know what number in line your manuscript is, and give an approximate date of completion.

 Simply donate the $50 to Dzanc via their support page at and then forward your receipt to with your manuscript attached. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Teeth that Bite: An Interview with Marlin Barton, Author of Pasture Art

 By Kevin Welch

The magic of the short story seems outshined by the glitz of the best-seller, soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture, box-office smash complete with new Hollywood cover shot of an actor’s photo-shopped face. I’m not poo-pooing success—who wouldn’t want to see Matt Damon or Claire Danes playing our characters?—just noting that stars falling from the sky and landing on a book’s cover shouldn’t necessarily be the depth of our literary blind date.

Some of the stories that stick with us the most are those finished in a dentist’s waiting room, a lunch break, or even waiting at the DMV (unless you go to my DMV, then just break out War & Peace). Great fiction has heart. It has eyes that bore into you, hands that shake you, teeth that bite. It leaves you with clips and rushes of made up memories, fantasies, something dark, something chilling, and something hopeful, something askew.

Marlin Barton’s latest short story collection, Pasture Art, is his finest work to date. His work leaves lingering echoes that bring the reader back for another go. The imagery is so lush that we know that river, field, and forest as a place from our own past. Barton is a master at telling a story. His mastery shines in this collection of shorts. His stories have heart. And, they have teeth.

I was given an opportunity to ask Barton a few questions about Pasture Art.

When reading Pasture Art, it’s as though we’re in a dinghy drifting on a river that winds through the collection. On the banks, one plot of land cedes to the next and on each a different story. While this is a collection of fictional stories, they feel real and this feeling is given life by the fictional Tennahpush River. Does the river function for you as a character or does its repeated appearance help you blur the lines between fiction and the real world?

I suppose it’s both. The Tennahpush, and the Black Fork River, which is also featured heavily in the collection, do feel a little like characters to me, and they also blur the lines, in a personal way, between fiction and reality. As for their being characters, I hope they come across as living things: they move, they have depth, they have a history that’s older than the people who live along their banks, and I hope they have a presence in the book. For the husband in “Braided Leather” and “Haints at Noon,” the Tennahpush offers aid in a possible escape from slavery, and in “Pasture Art,” it holds a level of danger if you think about the fisherman who end up shooting at the statues of deer at the top of the high bank.

Both rivers are fictional, but they are based on the Tombigbee and the Black Warrior Rivers in Alabama. I grew up in a little community called Forkland, which lies in the fork of the two rivers. I think it was inevitable that rivers would flow through all my fiction, and when I describe these rivers, I see in my mind’s eye the rivers that I grew up swimming and fishing in, but I wanted to give them fictional names to remind myself that I do need to create my own unique world for my characters. I have to add that over the years I’ve submitted stories to the Black Warrior Review, with no luck. It does seem like a writer who’s actually swam all the way across the Black Warrior, and it is a wide river, ought to have some advantage in placing a story there.

Rivers play an important role in your most recent novel, The Cross Garden, and again throughout Pasture Art. Scholars and critiques tend to relate a river to life but your rivers are somewhat darker. Where does this influence come from?

Rivers are life-giving things, I suppose, but life also has its darker side, which fiction must address. I’ve sometimes had my stories and fictional vision, if that doesn’t sound too fancy a term, described in reviews as “dark.” I don’t think of myself as a particularly “dark” kind of person; I try to be hopeful, and I also attempt to reach a place of hope in my fiction, but my stories and novels have often explored my characters’ capacity for evil, which is a theme as old as literature. So I think I’m going about the business of what I should be doing as a writer, and the rivers that run through my stories are simply a part of that. In The Cross Garden, for example, a murder by drowning has taken place, and I try to suggest in the novel that the river itself holds the memory of that act, just as it’s held in the memory of the main character Nathan.

Pasture Art features a number of stories from the female POV. What attracts you to that POV? Is it easier to define the supporting male characters from outside their POV influence?

I have often written from a female point of view. I’m not sure why, and haven’t really thought about it all that much, to be honest. I’m not the kind of writer who has notebooks and notebooks full of story ideas, so when an idea comes to me that seems workable, I try to write it. Sometimes the characters in those stories are male, sometimes female. And sometimes they are of a different race. I think all writers have every right to write from a point of view different from their own. How boring it would be to write only from a middle-aged, white, male point of view.

Your remark about it maybe being easier to define a male character from outside his point of view is an interesting one. In the novella “Playing War,” the main character is female, and I realize just now that I had to, of course, define her husband from her point of view. In many ways, that’s what the novella is about.  Their marriage is deeply troubled, and Carrie spends most of the novella trying to decide what kind of man her husband is, including if he’s capable of murder. The way she sees and defines him changes, and I hope the way the reader sees and defines him changes too. In fact, I hope the reader can sometimes see Foster more clearly than Carrie is able, even though everything the reader sees comes through her.

While all stories in Pasture Art stay with the reader long after the book is closed, the collection’s final (and longest) work, “Playing War,” is an intriguing, frightening page-turner. Was there ever a thought this could be a novel?

Not really. I envisioned it as a novella from the start. I’d thought it might run 100 manuscript pages or so, but it ended up running about 70 after I did a little cutting. I’ve never been a writer who experiments with form really, but one of the things I wanted to do in this collection was to try forms I’d never used before. So I wanted to give a novella a shot, and I thought just maybe I had a story idea that could sustain the length required. I also wanted to write a short, short, which was a real challenge. I think Brady Udall’s short “The Wig,” which is one of the finest short, shorts I’ve ever read, inspired me to try my hand at it. I’d also read a couple of volumes of slave narratives taken down in the 1930s for the Federal Writers’ Project, and it was a form that intrigued me. So while the short, short “Braided Leather” is written from the husband’s point of view, I thought revisiting that story from the wife’s point of view, and from a distance of many decades, might be a revealing thing to do, and hopefully each story helps to enlarge the other. Finally, there’s another story in the collection called “Midnight Shift” that’s written from a multiple third-person point of view. I’d always written from either third-person limited or from first person. While the story isn’t true omniscient point of view, it still uses a point of view I’d never attempted before.

If you take “Playing War” and put it opposite “Braided Leather” you have a 50+ page story and a one-page story, yet both have a powerful impact on the reader. When do you know a story is complete?

Here’s the short answer: when it feels right. But that’s a hard thing to know for certain. I suppose to give a kind of technical answer, I’d have to say after the climactic moment has occurred and the conflict has reached whatever resolution it’s going to reach, whether that’s a hopeful, completely satisfying resolution, or not. Stories should not tie up too neatly. Every little thread can’t always be accounted for. But the major issue at work in the story must be addressed and resolved in some way, even if that resolution is more implicit than explicit. The best stories work more by suggestion. They end up giving you a sense of how the character’s life might be changed by what’s just happened to them. By the way, I appreciate your compliment of the two stories you mentioned, just as I appreciate greatly your reading the collection so thoughtfully and wanting to ask me questions about it.

More information about Marlin Barton

Buy the book



Kevin Welch holds the MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Currently, he works as an instructor at Mt. Hood Community College, Portland, Oregon. He is working on his first novel, Military Dreams.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Tackling Po-Biz One Day at a Time

by Kim Roberts

Like most writers, I am plagued by a constant, nagging sense that I should be doing more of the administrative tasks needed to advance my career.

Recently, I was having coffee with Leslie and said something to her about the problem of  “doing Po-Biz.” I asked her, “You fiction writers don’t call it that—what do you call it?”

She looked up brightly and answered, “Crap.”

Which sums up how most of us feel, I’d guess—we know we need to do it, but it’s a chore. What do I mean by Po-Biz? It’s the part that feels most like work: applying for grants, fellowships, awards; sending out finished poems to journals, anthologies, competitions, presses; setting up readings; finding reviewers for our books.  It’s a big black hole: you can never do enough.

In the past, I’ve handled Po-Biz randomly, working up a head of steam and then sending out queries or applications in spurts—with long fallow periods between times when I tried to build up the energy to focus on administrative matters once again. This past January, I made a resolution to try a new tactic.

For the entire month, I did one piece of Po-Biz per day. I never did more than one thing, so it was never overly burdensome, and even small things counted. So one day I might merely send an email to a person who organizes a reading series, and the next day I might take on the larger task of sending a new book manuscript to a competition or applying for a residency at an artists’ colony. By the end of the month, I’d done an extraordinary 31 things.

Will this tactic bring me more professional opportunities? Hard to say. I may just get more rejections than usual. But I believe in putting my work out into the world. I can’t get opportunities if I don’t apply for them—and the more things I apply for, the more (statistically) for which I will be in the running.

And I found, surprisingly, that it was not too difficult to devote a month to the discipline of “doing Po-Biz.” I certainly felt virtuous every day. I’m thinking of picking another month and doing it again.


Kim Roberts’s fourth book of poems will be released by Poetry Mutual this April. Fortune’s Favor: Scott in the Antarctic is a connected series of blank verse sonnets based on explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s journal about his race to the South Pole in 1911 – 1912. More information about the book, including a short video, can be found on her website:

Friday, March 13, 2015

Pre-Pub Love from a Writer I Admire!

I don’t want this blog to turn into one of those blogs where all I ever do is talk about myself.  But you’ll have to excuse me while I talk about myself for just a minute here to note my immense pleasure at this notice from a writer I desperately and deeply admire, Robin Black, who had this to say about my forthcoming book in the “Bedtime Stories” column of the Washington Independent Review of Books:

“Coming out in fall 2015, This Angel on My Chest is the Drue Heinz Prize-winning collection of short stories by Leslie Pietrzyk, and it is stunning. Everyone should be marking their calendars and setting aside time for this entirely original, brilliant, and, yes, heartbreaking look at what it means to lose a spouse at a very young age. There is a prismatic quality to the book, new angles explored, new light cast from different vantage points. It’s not to be missed.”

So, I guess you can see why I felt like talking about myself for just a teensy minute or two!!

Here’s my post from when I first read Robin’s first book, the wonderful collection of short stories called, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This

And, for good measure, here’s her amazing essay about professional jealousy, recently published on the Gulf Coast blog:

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Survival Tips for AWP15!

It was a long tough winter for most of us, so could there be a better choice than to celebrate spring with an April trip to, um, beautiful Minneapolis for the big AWP writing conference?  There probably won’t be a blizzard while 10,000 writers descend upon the Twin Cities, but just imagining there might be gives us that whiff of tension and anxiety we writers thrive on.  Anyway, since the Big Event is coming up, it’s time for my annual list of helpful tips for dealing with the AWP conference, which will draw 10,000 bleary-eyed, name-dropping, crowd-scanning, black-clad, totebag-toting writers in desperate need of a drink and a blurb from Famous Writer.

How can you survive the experience and live to tell the tale?  Read on for my own conference survival tips, based on my past AWP experiences:

Wear comfortable shoes, at least most of the day. There’s lots of traipsing around long hallways and the long (sometimes uncarpeted) aisles of the book fair. It’s also inevitable that the one panel you really, really, really want to see will be in a teeny-tiny room and you’ll have to stand in the back…or sit on the floor; see the following tip:

Wear comfortable clothes, preferably taking a layer approach. Wherever you go, you will end up either in A) an incredibly stuffy room that will make you melt, or B) a room with an arctic blast directed at you. Bulk up and strip down as needed. Also, as noted above, the AWP conference staff has a knack for consistently misjudging the size of room required for a subject matter/speakers (i.e. Famous Writer in room with 30 chairs; grad student panel on Use of Dashes in Obscure Ancient Greek Poet in room with 300 chairs), so you may find yourself scrunched into a 2’x2’ square on the carpet; see the following tip:

To avoid being stuck sitting on the floor, arrive early to panels you really, really want to attend. If you are stuck on the floor, hold your ground with a big bag and/or coat to get yourself some extra space. Whatever you do, do not be nice and squeeze over…those panels can seem VERY LONG when someone’s knee is wedged in your ribs. (Any resulting bad karma will be worth it.)

If a panel is bad, ditch it. Yes, it’s rude. Yes, everyone does it. (Be better than the rest by at least waiting for an appropriate break, but if you must go mid-word, GO.) I can’t tell you the high caliber of presenters that I have walked out on, but think Very High. Remember that there are a thousand other options, and you have choices. The only time you have to stick it out is if A) the dull panel participant is your personal friend or B) the dull panel participant is/was your teacher or C) the dull panel participant is your editor/publisher. Those people will notice (and remember) that you abandoned them mid-drone and punish you accordingly (i.e. your glowing letters of rec will instead incinerate). Undoubtedly this is why I have never been published in Unnamed Very High Caliber Magazine, having walked out on the editor’s panel.

There are zillions of panels: When you pick up your registration badge, you’ll get a massive tome with information about all of them, and also a shorter schedule that’s easy to carry around. Take some time right away to read through the tome and circle the panels you want to attend on your master schedule. Then ditch the tome. Better yet, go to the AWP website now and scroll through the schedule tome and decide now where you want to be when. And best of all, use the “my schedule” planning feature on the online schedule to mark the events you’re interested in and keep that stored on your favorite technology (mine is a sheaf of printed paper…which may be smart since right now I’m too dumb to figure out how/where to re-access “my schedule”).  Anyway…no point waking up early on Friday if there’s nothing you want to attend. I checkmark panels I might go to if nothing better is going on and star those that I will make a supreme effort to attend. Give yourself a couple of options at each time slot so that if a room is too crowded, you have an interesting alternative.

Someone will always ask a 20-minute question that is not so much a question but a way of showing off their own (imagined) immense knowledge of the subject and an attempt to erase the (endlessly lingering) sting of bitterness about having their panel on the same topic rejected. Don’t be that person. Keep your question succinct and relevant. Maybe even write it down first, before you start to endlessly ramble. And yes, if you are “that person,” everyone will mimic your annoying question to their friends in the bookfair aisle, and your career is over.

Don’t ever say anything gossipy on the elevator, unless you want the whole (literary) world to know it. Do listen up to the conversations of others on the elevator, and tell your friends what you’ve overheard over your offsite dinner, embellishing as necessary.

Same advice above exactly applies to the overpriced hotel bar.  Also, if you happen to get a chair at the bar, or, goodness, EVEN A REAL LIVE TABLE, hang on to it!!  People will join you if they see you’ve got a spot!  Famous people!  I mean it: the only reason to ever give up a table in the hotel bar is because the bar has shut down, you’ve consumed every bit of liquid in the clutter of glasses, and a beefy bouncer is headed your way.

Support the publications at the bookfair. Set a budget for yourself in advance, and spend some money on literary journals and books and subscriptions, being sure to break your budget. Do this, and then you won’t feel bad picking up the stuff that’s been heavily discounted or being given away free on the last day of the conference. But, please, do spend some money!

Just because something is free, you don’t have to take it. Unless you drove, you’ll have to find a way to bring home all those heavy books/journals on an airplane. Or you’ll have to wait in line at the hotel’s business center to ship them home. So, be as discerning as you can when you see that magic markered “free” sign on top of a pile of sad-looking journals, abandoned by the grad students with hangovers who didn’t feel like dealing with their university's bookfair table.

Try not to approach the table of each journal at the bookfair with this question:  “How can I get published in your journal?” Also, I recommend avoiding this one: “How come you didn’t publish my poem/story/essay/screed?”  Try instead: “What a beautiful journal. Please tell me more about it.”

It may be too late for some of you, but it’s inevitable that you will see every writer you’ve ever met in the aisle of the bookfair at one AWP or another…so I hope you were nice to all of them and never screwed anyone over. Because, yes, they will remember, and it’s not fun reliving all that drama as the editors of The Georgia Review gaze on.

Pre-arrange some get-togethers with friends/teachers/grad student buddies, but don’t over-schedule. You’ll run into people, or meet people, or be invited to a party, or find an amazing off-the-beaten-track bar.  Save some time for spontaneity! (Yes, I realize that I’m saying “plan” for spontaneity.)

Don’t laugh at this, but bring along Purell and USE IT often.  For weeks after, post-AWP Facebook status updates are filled with writers bemoaning the deathly cold/sore throat/lingering and mysterious illness they picked up at AWP.  We’re a sniffly, sneezy, wheezy, germy bunch, and the thought of 10,000 of us packed together breathing on each other, shaking hands, and giving fake hugs of glee gives the CDC nightmares.

Along the lines of healthcare, don’t forget to drink a lot of water and pop an Advil before going to sleep if (haha…if!) you’ve been drinking a little more than usual.

Escape! Whether it’s offsite dinners/drinks/museums/walks through park/mindless shopping or whatever, do leave at some point. You will implode if you don’t. 

This is a super-secret tip that I never share, but I’ll share it as a reward for those who have read this far:  there will be a bathroom that’s off the beaten track and therefore is never crowded. Scope out this bathroom early on. Don’t tell anyone except your closest friends the location of this bathroom.

Finally, take a deep breath.  You’re just as much of a writer as the other 9,999 people around you.  Don’t let them get to you.


If you're interested, I will be reading at these two off-site events:

Friday, April 10
11:30am - 6:00pm
Minneapolis Convention Center: Room M101BC

The Third Annual HEAT Reading, HEAT: Hotter Than Hell, will take place at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Room M101BC (1st Floor). It is a free, fiery offsite event MC-ed by the fantabulous Antonia Crane. Indulge in our cash bar. Make your $5 contribution to VIDA (if you can). Win gift certificates to Powell's you can use online.

The Breakdown:

Leslie Pietrzyk
Anna Leahy
Ben Tanzer
Janée J. Baugher
Robin E. Black
Bonnie West
Jane Neathery Cutler


April 10, 2015
6:30 PM ~ 8:00 PM
Sponsored by The Sun Magazine
Open to the public
Minneapolis Central Library
Pohlad Hall
300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN

Sy Safransky
Krista Bremer
Joe Wilkins
Leslie Pietrzyk

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Winning Picture!


Thank you to everyone who voted for their favorite.  This may not be your favorite, but it got the most votes in the end (often paired with another), and it got only one vote in the "please don't ever distribute this terrifying picture in public, I beg of you" section.

I am also going to hang onto this one, as several people suggested that there are venues who prefer a more serious look:


And thank you to photographer Susan Hale Thomas

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Some Upcoming Readings

I'll be participating in the following group readings, one in DC, and two at AWP in Minneapolis. I'd love to see you there, if you're so inclined! 

Thursday, March 12
Upshur Street Books
827 Upshur St NW, Washington, District of Columbia 20011
Come enjoy readings, food, drinks, and music! Copies of Folio Literary Journal will be available for purchase. Please come ready to contribute a donation to the wonderful Folio!

Writers reading:
Carolyn White
Jenna Ogilve
Leslie Pietrzyk
Mark Cugini
Paulette Beete
Tyler Christensen
Jonathan Harper

After 11pm, the party continues in the Petworth Citizen Reading Room.


AWP Reading
Friday, April 10
11:30am - 6:00pm
Minneapolis Convention Center: Room M101BC

The Third Annual HEAT Reading, HEAT: Hotter Than Hell, will take place at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Room M101BC (1st Floor). It is a free, fiery offsite event MC-ed by the fantabulous Antonia Crane. Indulge in our cash bar. Make your $5 contribution to VIDA (if you can). Win gift certificates to Powell's you can use online.

The Breakdown:

Leslie Pietrzyk
Anna Leahy
Ben Tanzer
Janée J. Baugher
Robin E. Black
Bonnie West

Jane Neathery Cutler


April 10, 2015
6:30 PM ~ 8:00 PM
AWP Reading
Sponsored by The Sun Magazine
Open to the public
Minneapolis Central Library
Pohlad Hall
300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN

Sy Sarfransky
Krista Bremer
Joe Wilkins
Leslie Pietrzyk


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Mark Wisniewski on His Novel WATCH ME GO: Letting the Voices "Flow"

My thanks to writer Mark Wisniewski for taking some time to answer a few questions about his new novel, WATCH ME GO, a dark and tangled story about two desperate characters whose paths cross after careening through a landscape of murder, betrayal, gambling, injustice, and love.  Ranging from the Bronx to the racetrack, from a naïve young woman to a guy who grew up on the streets—and all evoked with precision and beauty—my reading experience was one of encountering worlds layered upon worlds.  I recommend the book to anyone looking for complex story-telling and the kind of deep and powerful characters you can’t shake off—and, from a craft standpoint, I’d also recommend the book as a study in working with point-of-view.  (As my questions reflect, I’m one of those writers who likes to study POV!)

Deesh first appeared in “Straightaway,” Mark’s short story that was selected to appear in an edition of the Best American Short Stories.  Deesh and his buddies from the Bronx have been hired to haul away a mysterious (and alarmingly heavy) oil drum from a farmhouse in upstate New York. Can we just say that the novel takes us beyond the end of that amazing story, and that it’s not “hilarity” that ensues, but bad decisions and worse consequences?

Jan comes to upstate New York with her mother to spend the summer with family friends.  Dreaming of being a jockey like her dead father, she’s also dreaming of love, and finds herself drawn to the family’s son, Tug, who has his own dreams of running a horse farm and one day heading to college.  Too bad his dad Tom is an unrepentant gambler…

Here’s what Mark had to say about his book:

You made a number of choices with regard to point of view that are of special interest to me. The book alternates first person POV between two very different characters, Deesh, an African-American man from the Bronx streets, and Jan, a young, horse-crazy woman who grew up fatherless in Arkansas.  How—and why—did you choose these characters to tell your story?

Those characters chose me. Deesh's voice came into my head for reasons I will never know for sure, other than that I'd been teaching a lot back then and therefore reading countless journal entries written by students--and one of the student's writing voices sounded a lot like Deesh's. You know how that goes, Leslie: a narrative voice starts coming out well on the screen, you don't stop to question it, you just let it flow. And in this case it kept flowing into secrets and violent conflicts and insights that owed themselves to Deesh's having been up against serious trouble. At some point, his voice felt sort of like a best friend. And Jan's narrative voice had its own quasi-magical, quasi spiritual genesis. If I got into all the details about how her narrative voice came about, you'd think I was insane. 

What drew you to the first person? What were the challenges of creating not one but two distinct first person voices? Was the duo of first person narrators your intention from the beginning?

There were so many permutations of this novel, Leslie, it's hard for me to answer that question. I can say that, in the early nineties, when the first sentences of Watch Me Go came out, they were in first person. But I would then have to add that there were long periods of time when various chapters were narrated in third person. Additionally, as you no doubt noticed, my editor and I chose to have Jan, at times, narrate her best guesses regarding what Tug experienced/ thought/feared shortly before his demise. The result of our choosing to have Jan address this was that several consecutive sentences of Jan's first person narrative can, if read out of context, feel like third-person from Tug's point of view--when in fact those sentences are Jan's first-person-post-tragedy-speculation. That's some significantly tricky playing around with point of view (in some people's eyes), and if someone out there doesn't read the book closely or take it seriously, that person might not get the implied emotional landscape of Jan's narration. So for my editor and me to go ahead now and then with that "hybrid" manner of Jan's narration was a gamble. We knew there was risk; we knew speed-readers might not get what was being implied and how this could lead to a feeling of suspense regarding why Tug couldn't narrate his own story--and we went for it. My point here being, I guess, that my intentions about point of view morphed countless times as this book shifted gears toward publication.

What differences were there in the way you considered plot as you approached this novel, which is definitely on the mystery/suspense end of the spectrum, versus your previous books and short stories, which I assume were more, for lack of a better word, traditionally “literary”?

I always liked plot. Then I went to a couple grad schools in creative writing, where "literary" was the code word you needed to say to get invited to the best parties. There was a professor (won't say where) who encouraged his creative writing students to develop plots in their fiction, and he was absolutely despised and ostracized--while the professors who wrote poetic sentences about characters' musings were being pretty much adored and deified. That's just one of those things academia believes: diction and character trump having an interesting chain of events. Or at least that's how academia was back in the day. Now, maybe, MFA programs aren't so snobbish when it comes to plot?

“Write what you know” is about the oldest bit of writing advice there is. Here, I feel that there were things you did “know,” at least to some extent (i.e. the world of the racetrack) and things you didn’t (i.e. as far as I can tell you are not a young woman!). Can you speak to the relevance of that advice in your writing and writing in general?

Well, I do know the racetrack somewhat, and that helped me write a few scenes. Regarding lack of first-hand experience, I'll admit to needing to speculate sometimes about what it was like to be Jan. We all have memories, though, and in my case the writing/revising of Watch Me Go took so many years, I went through several girlfriends in the duration (having a novel face rejection for years can really test a relationship), so, at some point during all those years of revision, I could think back on the struggles of these various women I'd dated. Strikes me now that nearly every woman I've known has had, at some point in her life, some jerk harassing her sexually, and plenty of these women have eventually told me details about the various hells they've gone through harassment-wise. So writing those Jan sections about the jerks at the track hitting on her didn't require much imagination. I mean, you just think back on the horror stories you've heard--and you change the names and settings and write.

This novel started as a short story, “Straightaway.” When you wrote this story, did you know it was going to become a novel? The story focuses exclusively on Deesh and his buddies, hired to dispose of a sealed oil drum; they suspect there’s a body inside it, but they want the cash—which they take to the racetrack. How and why did you decide to expand this story into a novel; when in the process did Jan come in?  Did you consider elevating others to POV characters?

Often I thought of making [Tom’s associate] Jasper a narrator. He was such a cool guy! It was as if he sensed precisely how the nefarious horse-folk were messing with Tom and Tug and Jan, yet he never knew the facts for sure--yet he never let his uncertainty or the mounting horror of the situation rattle him. And he had that vintage Galaxie 500, and you just knew he knew those back roads upstate better than anyone. In any case, yes, the short story "Straightaway" was always chomping at the bit to run long, and, for a few years there, I simply didn't want it to. I was scared of the anti-sports sentiment among literary folk. I was too busy and worried about paying off a mortgage.  

Having a story selected for the Best American Short Stories series is a dream for most of the fiction writers I know. I would love to know more about the Big Moment, when you learned that “Straightaway” had been chosen…and by Salman Rushdie, no less! How did you hear?

A screened phone message from Bob Fogarty (editor of Antioch Review). I picked up as soon as I heard the words "Best American." I was in shock. It was cloudy outside, the middle of February, I think, so there'd been that general sense of malaise everywhere you'd go, inside the house and out. So, yes, definitely: that phone call changed the trajectory of my career.
This passage from Jan resonated with me:  “And, sure, winning felt good, very, very good, but a victory in a horse race takes very little time, a very small fraction of your life. And then there ends up being the whole rest of your life, where you feel caught in this tangle of beauty and ugliness.”  With so many bleak elements in the book—murders, betrayals, secrets—what are the ways in which your characters were allowed to experience beauty?

Nature. Both Jan and Deesh ran from the deaths & betrayals & choices that marred their lives, and their attempts to run more or less forced them to encounter things like moonlight between treetops, sunshine on water, unfettered birdsong, unexpected landscapes, and of course the splendor of running horses. Even when Deesh was up against that bobcat, he saw beauty in its eyes. In fact, Deesh's conceived solution to his troubles was to disappear into nature. He hoped it could be nature and him only. His greatest problems--and Jan's--were thanks to people.   

You can read more about WATCH ME GO here.
Here’s more information about Mark Wisniewski at his author site.

Monday, March 2, 2015

700 Photos

Does anyone really need 700 photos taken of herself?  Does anyone even need that narrowed down by the photographer to a sightly less horrifying 200?  Ai-yi-yi.  This experience was a ring of hell for this author, who basically hates all but about 5-6 photos of herself ever taken over a lifetime.  (Note:  this is all me and my irrational fussiness and some deep pyschological issues!  Susan Hale Thomas is an amazing photographer! Here's her website: )

So, I'm down to these, and maybe you want to weigh in on which you think I should chooose?  Remember, knowing me, this will the photo I'll be using for the next 10  years...or more!

Photo A

Photo B
Admittedly, a little unconventional, but I do think this is what I look like, always talking!

Photo C

Photo D

Photo E

Photo F

Photo G

Photo H

Photo I

Okay, here's the quick survey:

Honestly, I don't know what that scary empty box is (beyond a failed attempt to paste in HTML code), but ignore it...the survey works for me.  Also, I will be deleting this post in several days, so vote now!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.